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Chemically sensitive raise a stink over odors, innuendoes Something in the Air


When David Pugh's mother-in-law used to visit, he got sick. His stomach churned, eyes watered and head pounded seconds after this stylish Italian woman clutched him in her arms. It wasn't her display of affection that sent him racing to the medicine chest; it was her Liz Taylor perfume.

After years of sniffing and saying nothing, Mr. Pugh, an allergy sufferer, has become an activist for his respiratory rights -- even if it means confronting relatives about their grooming habits.

"I feel like a bloodhound sometimes -- picking up scents that aren't offensive to most people," says Mr. Pugh, 37, a graphic designer who lives in Hamilton. "But I have every right to breathe fragrance-free air."

Empowered by the victory of nonsmokers in reclaiming their airspace, sneezers and chemically sensitive alike are lobbying to limit secondhand scents. Although there's no surgeon general supporting their cause and no mystique (yet) to giving up the perfume bottle, this contingent holds steadfast to its desire to make schools, churches and workplaces devoid of everything from L'Air du Temps to Pine-Sol.

Impaired by even a whiff of aromatic underarm deodorant, ridiculed by their healthier friends, they have grown tired of dodging a minefield of smells. But their opposition in this battle is formidable: Doctors continue to debate whether the most serious condition associated with perfume intolerance -- multiple chemical sensitivity/environmental illness (MCS) -- even exists and research expands on how scents can do everything from promote relaxation to reduce migraines.

In some quarters, concerns about cologne are being taken seriously. The EEOC has started a separate category to chart workplace complaints related to multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition triggered by chemical exposure that can bring on headaches, fevers and other symptoms. Since late 1993, the group has received more than 100 complaints a year.

Two years ago, the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work began asking students, faculty and staff to refrain from wearing any scented products in the building. And closer to home, Stony Run Friends Meeting House now offers a scent-free service on Sunday mornings to accommodate worshipers who can't tolerate cologne.

On some level, it's a clash of personal freedoms: Does one person's right to douse himself with Old Spice exceed another's right to breathe scentless air?

"It's like this," says Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery County legislator and allergy sufferer: "I have every right to swing my arms, but I don't have the right to hit you in the face with them."

During the most recent General Assembly session, she wrote to other House members after leaving a committee meeting because of an overly cologned colleague. In her letter, she explained her allergy problem and asked for their cooperation.

Although she says reaction was positive, she endured plenty of jokes. Her request -- along with the smoking ban -- earned the session the nickname "The Year That Smelled."

The poster for the Legislative Follies, a parody by legislators, featured a perfume bottle with a line through it. And during the show, Ms. Petzold made a cameo appearance: She jumped from her seat and walked toward the stage with a 5-foot-long sign that read "Fragrance Free Zone."

Louise Kosta, spokeswoman for the Human Action Ecology League, an environmental group in Atlanta, encourages people to confront their oppressors but acknowledges the news isn't always well received.

"We don't believe fragrance is something that people are entitled to use as much as they want, whenever they want, as often as they want," she says. "If a friend of yours had a great blob of tar on her nose, you'd tell her. But when you go up and say, 'I'm sorry, but I can't stand the way you smell,' people take it personally."

Many of the scent-conscious are opting for a more tactful approach.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, has responded to stronger fumes with barbed humor. "I have been known to get up before the show and say, "OK, who dumped the patchouli on their head?" he says. "The art scene types -- they bring in the strongest scents. With them, it's become a form of personal statement: Love me, love my scent."

He believes the same bad manners that allow people to blare their car radios lets them lavish on the cologne. "Fundamentally, it's a form of rudeness," he says. "People have lost a sense of what it's like to go out in public."

No escape

Public places don't pose the only roadblocks. For Mr. Pugh, getting the mail used to be an exercise in misery, since bills and magazines were filled with fragrance strips. He recently gave up his subscription to Rolling Stone after the magazine ignored his written requests for a fragrance-free issue.

If his wife, Cami Colarossi, had any doubt about what he could tolerate, she learned after using some Christmas potpourri in their house a few years ago. "I thought maybe if I put it on a shelf behind some books he wouldn't notice it, and it wouldn't bother him," she says.

"Before he even walked down the stairs, he stared at me and said, 'I smell something. What are you trying to do to me?' I grumbled and basically threw it away. . . . I know he's not faking it, but it is frustrating."

Smells may stir such strong feelings because of the way we perceive them. Once inside the body, a scent is immediately picked up by the limbic system, the center for emotion and memory, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, which treats patients, sponsors studies and works with companies to use fragrances.

That explains why the smell of moth balls can immediately rekindle thoughts of grandmother or a whiff of a cake baking may take us back to childhood.

A believer in the positive power of scents, Dr. Hirsch suggests that the current controversy over odor may be related to psychology as much as biology. The problems a worker has with a colleague's cologne, he says, may mask a deeper conflict about office relations.

But Dr. Richard Layton, a Towson allergist and pediatrician who currently treats nearly 100 MCS patients, says that pesticides, pollutants and poorly ventilated buildings are more to blame than co-workers' spats.

"Most people have a physical condition and secondary stress from that," he says. "It's a form of discrimination to say this isn't a problem just because physicians don't have a way to accurately diagnose it."

But even as more people object to scents, the application for them grows. Aromatherapy, in which essential oils of flowers, herbs and other plants are said to produce serenity, vitality or other moods, has been used in beauty salons, stores, bars and other places in recent years. Dr. Hirsch's foundation is conducting 85 different studies examining how scents can reduce migraines, claustrophobia, obesity and other health problems.

Desperate measures

One person who doesn't buy the healing power of chemical fragrances is Marilyn McVicker. In her life, such smells have simply made her sick.

A former school teacher, she's suffered from multiple chemical sensitivity for nearly 10 years. One whiff of a pesticide or perfume, she says, can bring on headaches, fevers, joint aches, nausea, rashes, disorientation, insomnia, muscle spasms and cardiac problems.

"It's not like a sniffle or a sneeze. It's very serious and life-threatening," says Ms. McVicker, 42, who lives in Parkville.

Her condition has gotten so serious, she says, that she rarely has guests over or sees her three children, who live with their father.

Although Stony Run Friends Meeting House began a scent-free service for her on Sunday mornings, she stopped going since a pesticide applied to the lawn made her ill. Even fragrance-free products often contain a masking scent that sparks a reaction in her.

Her food, all organically grown, is delivered. She cleans with baking soda or a specially formulated shampoo. Although she typically has people shop for her, when she does venture out she has store owners bring items to her car, which is equipped with an oxygen tank and two air filters.

"I basically do not move in society anymore," says Ms. McVicker, who also suffers from arthritis and other illnesses, which allow her to collect disability. "I can't. I'm not agoraphobic. It's just not worth it to me to be that sick."

Early in her illness, she used to try to shop with her children by wearing a "double-barreled respirator," but that created other problems.

"People would stare at us," she says. "My kids developed a wonderful sense of humor. They'd say, 'She's my mom. She's trying out for the role of Darth Vader.' "

Although workplace complaints involving MCS are tracked by the EEOC, none has met the standards for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. (To be covered, the employee must have a medically recognized impairment that seriously limits activities, and an employer must have failed to make reasonable accommodations.)

But for those who suffer from it -- or lesser conditions -- the problem is real.

Out of concern for his health, Mr. Pugh, aided by his wife, finally talked to his mother-in-law about her perfume.

"The next time she came, there still was a problem and we mentioned it a second time," he says. "She said, 'I just used a little bit.' She didn't want to go cold turkey. But this last trip, she finally caught on."

So why was Dave Pugh still sneezing?

After interrogating the crowd, he got his answer: "My wife's sister-in-law admitted she had on a little perfume."

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